01/19/2013 11:34 am ET Updated Mar 21, 2013

MLK: Message for a Violent Society

We remember Martin Luther King Jr. primarily as the eloquent defender of social justice against the forces of hatred, whose voices we hear barking to this day. But in some ways his most daring -- and effective -- contribution was in skillfully deploying a tactic: nonviolence. And while American society has moved closer toward the ideal of equality, our violence-saturated culture today apparently still has much to learn from Rev. King's peaceful example.

The Jim Crow American south that King stood against followed crude social customs. One of his aides, Dorothy Cotton, recalled for me in a public radio interview the system for withdrawing library books in the town of Petersburg, Virginia, where she lived in the 1950s. "Colored" patrons were not admitted through the front door of the Petersburg public library then. Instead, they had to come to a delivery door off an alley and hope that the librarian on duty happened to be in a good mood. If so, a requested book might be retrieved from the stacks and brought to the patronized patron.

It was American Apartheid. Everyday indignities ranged from public bathrooms and water fountains designated "Whites Only," to blacks-only public schools, where tattered textbooks would arrive only after they had been used and handed down by the white schools. Discrimination in employment, housing and public venues like restaurants and cinemas was a matter of course, unobstructed by meddlesome courts. The right to vote was denied many African Americans. Even churches practiced segregation while preaching "brotherhood."

A child of the south, Dr. King knew how deeply this infrastructure of bigotry was entrenched. His civil rights movement waged its campaign not just in the halls of justice and the hearing rooms of Congress. King recognized the ultimate battlefield must be in the hearts of ordinary Americans, where unquestioned prejudice would have to give way to a soul-searching acknowledgement of everyone's fundamental humanity, regardless of race.

And to win that battle, King understood the power of nonviolence. It was a technique he had carefully studied from the remarkable precedent established in the 1940s by Mohandas Gandhi, whose pacifist strategy freed India from British colonial domination. King sought to adapt the principles of nonviolence to the particular conditions of prejudice and intimidation faced by civil rights activists in the U.S. south.

This aspect of his legacy is examined in "Meeting Hate with Love," our Humankind public radio documentary, which is airing on many stations this weekend. You can hear it at: Human Media.

"Somebody," King said, "must have sense enough to meet hate with love. Somebody must have sense enough to meet physical force with soul force. If we will but try this way, we will be able to change these conditions and yet at the same time win the hearts and souls of those who have kept these conditions alive."

King embraced a tenet of Gandhi's philosophy: in a just cause, one had to be willing to endure incarceration, even brutality, but would hold the moral high ground by never responding with violence. Instead, protest would be registered through peaceful "non-cooperation" with a system that is wrong.

The civil rights movement sought equal treatment for all citizens. Yet this simple, democratic plea was greeted by years of Ku Klux Klan terrorism and pushback by obstinate state and local authorities, sometimes in the form of snarling police dogs.

"Find a way to change the agenda, to offer another way," was King's response, according to Dr. Vincent Harding, who served as first director of the King Center in Atlanta. "When you are treated with evil, find a way to respond with good - to open new possibilities, not to follow in the terror of the old possibilities."

That is the essence of non-violence. It interrupts the downward spiral, which merely counters violence with still more violence. It is an arms race no one ultimately wins, because sooner or later, those who live by the sword die by the sword.

"Our goal is not to show the opponent that we can be as angry, as unjust, as violent as he is," says Harding. "No, we've got to keep on going towards that goal of building a new community...where people don't simply get back at each other, but are constantly urged onward to create something new."

Which brings us to today's epidemic of gun violence. At his White House statement on January 16, President Obama pointed out that since the elementary school murders a month earlier at Sandy Hook school, over 900 additional Americans had been killed by guns.

Given this bloodshed, our national debate about gun policy has finally begun anew. We will argue over whether to improve background checks before you can buy a gun and if we should ban the sale of high-capacity weapons, like the one that snuffed out the Newtown kids in a rapid-fire hail.

But new federal policies won't be enough. Martin Luther King proved the world-changing power of nonviolence, even in the ugly face of bigotry. With painstaking persistence, he showed it is actually possible to change people's hearts. Not in all cases and certainly not all at once, but little by little.

Can we as a nation intentionally cultivate the ways of nonviolence? It would mean thinking about, developing and applying a set of skills: Schools would be a site not of mass murder, but where people learn and demonstrate kindness. When we disagree, hate speech would be replaced by love speech. We would look past labels, to connect with the human being underneath. Before accusing others, we would find the courage to look in the mirror. We would practice the discipline of deep listening.

We would view each other as full members of the beloved community Dr. King dreamed of.